James V. Wertsch For The Straits Times

Does Russia suffer from a messiah complex?

Pro-Russian rebels on a tank near the airport in Donetsk on Saturday. The best course of action for the US and Europe is to make it clear that territorial encroachment in Ukraine or elsewhere will be very costly.
Pro-Russian rebels on a tank near the airport in Donetsk on Saturday. The best course of action for the US and Europe is to make it clear that territorial encroachment in Ukraine or elsewhere will be very costly.PHOTO: REUTERS

Russia's adventure in Ukraine is part of its neo-Eurasianism ideology that pits its Eurasian roots against the 'Atlanticist' forces of the US and Europe.

After months of silence, critical voices have re-emerged in Russia. Tens of thousands of demonstrators came out on the streets in Moscow and other cities on Sept 21 demanding that President Vladimir Putin keep his "Hands Off Ukraine!" and stop lying about the Kremlin's actions.

To be sure, the authorities permitted the protests, perhaps to judge the public mood, but in the face of threats of violence from Russian nationalists, the marchers exhibited real courage. And they reminded the world that their voices are still to be heard, despite efforts by Mr Putin and his thuggish supporters to silence them.

The protesters represent one side of a debate that started four centuries ago with Peter the Great, a debate between two visions of Russia's destiny.

In speaking of their desire for Russia to be a "normal country", the marchers were calling for it to follow one such vision by becoming a modern European state that respects the borders of others and allows its citizens to be prosperous, democratic, and secure at home.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, hopes for this path forward were high, but subsequent years of corruption and perceived humiliation by the West have allowed for an opposing vision to re- emerge.

This second vision reflects a centuries-old messianic streak in Russian culture, centred on the belief that the nation has a unique mission transcending the constraints of a normal country. It is a view that surfaces in the works of 19th-century Russian literature, and it has sometimes led the nation to do great things, such as its heroic World War II struggle against Germany in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

But it can also lead Russia to be arrogant, prickly and dangerous, especially when it is feeling insecure. At such times, Russian leaders alternate between arrogant boasts about their military power and spiritual superiority, on the one hand, and heightened sensitivity to perceived slights and threats, on the other.

A distinct spiritual core

WHAT is new in this current bout of messianism is that it is built on a dream that extends beyond Russia itself, a dream of "neo-Eurasianism".

This movement traces its roots to Russians who fled to Europe after the 1917 Revolution and created a vision of national destiny around czarist monarchy and Russian Orthodoxy, as opposed to Bolshevism. In the 1920s dozens of emigres were holding regular seminars in Paris, Vienna and Brussels, and were publishing a newspaper and academic journals touting Eurasianism in response to what they saw as the death of Russian culture in the Soviet Union.

They came up with a vision that celebrates a fusion of cultures from East and West, asserting that instead of a curse, the 13th-century Mongol invasion was a source of strength for the grand cultural amalgamation that ensued. And instead of anxiety over whether Russia is truly European, it celebrates a distinct spiritual core that makes Russia a world civilisation and relegates Europe to the periphery.

Perhaps because of fears about economic stagnation, or maybe because the Kremlin is concerned about disillusionment among Russian youth, the idea of Eurasianism has been dusted off and put back to work.

Moral depravity

THE implicit hope is that it can provide a bastion of conservative values of spirituality, family and community, and a bulwark against the moral depravity of "Atlanticist" forces in the United States and Europe.

Kremlin leaders take these notions seriously. In his speeches, Mr Putin explicitly draws on Eurasianist ideas about the rise and fall of national collectives' energy and will, and the influence of neo-Eurasianist leader Alexander Dugin has led some analysts to call him "Putin's brain".

Mr Dugin's "fourth political theory" is supposed to supplant what he sees as the failed visions of liberal democracy, communism and fascism. He sees forces of nihilism and moral bankruptcy in the US and Europe that threaten to overrun the rest of the world, and he asserts that the mission of a Eurasian civilisation led by Russia is to stop this onslaught.

Tracing these ideas back a bit further, the Russian scholar Lev Gumilev (1912-1992) placed the question "What is a people?" at the centre of his Eurasianism.

For him, each people or "ethnos" has a life cycle of its own, and the US and Europe are on the downhill slope of theirs. He also viewed Jews as cosmopolitan and as constituting a "super-ethnos", and hence not a real people, thus introducing an element of anti- Semitism that continues to haunt neo-Eurasianism today.

Gumilev's contributions have been judged so significant that the L. N. Gumilev National University was founded in 1996 in Kazakhstan, a country which, together with Belarus and Russia, makes up the newly formed Eurasian Union.

It is neo-Eurasianism that lurks behind Mr Putin's mockery of Western voices that he sees calling for the "equivalence of good and evil, no matter how odd that may seem", and it is neo-Eurasianism that leads him to obsess over the threat of homosexuality to the traditional family stemming from "so-called tolerance" that leads to "genderless and infertile" societies.

And finally, it is neo-Eurasianism that reinforces the idea that Ukraine is an essential and inalienable part of Russia.

The crisis between Russia and Ukraine began when the latter declined to join the Eurasian Union in 2013, and any claims that it is not really part of Russia are taken by the Kremlin to be the work of Atlanticist enemies.

Building on this, Mr Putin has been able to spin out conspiracies about how Nato - not Russia - instigated the conflict in Ukraine and even how others are somehow responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July.

Mr Putin's channelling of neo- Eurasianism resonates widely in Russia, especially in today's hothouse of nationalism. His approval ratings are over 80 per cent and a recent government-sponsored poll named him as Russia's "highest moral authority".

In such a context, the re-emergence of voices calling for Russia to become a normal country is a welcome development. Russia and the world urgently need them to speak up. In the end, however, this is a debate that will have to be settled within Russia itself. It will have to decide between a messianic mission and a modern state - a cause and a country.

When it comes to Ukraine, the best course of action for the US and Europe is to make it clear that territorial encroachment there or anywhere else will come at a very high price. Punishing sanctions are a good start, and if the West is patient and consistent, the Kremlin may recognise the untenable cost of pursuing a neo-Eurasianist mission.

In the meantime, the world has to brace itself for further, seemingly self-destructive actions motivated by a messianic world view few outside Russia appreciate.

The writer is the Marshall S. Snow Professor of Arts and Sciences and Vice- Chancellor for International Affairs at Washington University in St Louis. He was a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Moscow State University in the 1970s and 1980s and an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Education.

stopinion@sph.com.sg